Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Night the Lights Went Out--The 1977 New York Blackout

American Experience (2015) (1 hr. 32 min.)


       This past week, on July 13, saw the 40th Anniversary of the 1977 New York Blackout. During that evening, a thunderstorm struck New York. Several lightening strikes destroyed several high-voltage power lines and, by 9:35 pm, all five Burroughs were without power--the outage would last 25 hours. What erupted, particularly in black neighborhoods, was an orgy of looting, arson, and violence. Complicating the fact was that police were told to report to the nearest precinct rather than the one they normally worked at, which meant that, for the most part, there were few police in the poorest parts of the city.

        The New York Post, looking back on the Blackout, relates:
       Then the lights went out, and in Bushwick, the “Battle of Broadway’’ began. On a three-mile stretch of the major thoroughfare that divides Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant, fires, looting and rioting erupted just minutes after the power fizzled. 
        Sekzer, now 73, had been one of just 14 cops protecting the neighborhood’s 90,000 residents and its massive shopping district along Broadway that night. A widespread department layoff two years earlier had left the 83rd Precinct with half its usual brigade. 
* * * 
       “As we turn onto Broadway, we stop dead,” Sekzer said. “Hundreds, hundreds and hundreds of people ripping off the stores. Two people walking around with couches, with TVs under their arms, everything.” 
        Looters were running wild across the city — but the worst of the worst was happening on Broadway in Bushwick. 
       Marauding bands of disgruntled residents — men, women and children — flooded the streets and began destroying everything in their paths, one grocery store and clothing shop at a time. Sekzer made sure to stay close to his patrol car. 
       “We definitely would’ve gotten our ass kicked if that crowd had turned and said, ‘Let’s go get the cops,’ ” he said. 
       Stores’ iron gates were ripped off by dozens of greedy hands. People shamelessly pulled up to the fronts of furniture stores in trucks and loaded up whatever they could fit. Bullets rained from the rooftops. The sound of hysteria cackled all around. 
       Bushwick burned a bright shade of orange as vandals set fire to the stores that had been picked clean. 
       “They were like bluefish in a feeding frenzy. . . . The strongest feeling I had was one of disbelief,’’ a police captain in the nearby 81st Precinct would say later, according to a report on that night by the Ford Foundation. 
       “I’ve seen looting before, but this was total devastation. Smashing, burning.” 
       For many of the impoverished local residents, it was as if the holidays had come early. 
       “It’s our Christmas,” a little boy told a jewelry store owner on Broadway the day after the blackout, according to The Post’s coverage of the event at the time. “Gimme somethin’.” 
       NYPD trucks whizzed by, dropping off boxes of ammunition to cops, while Sekzer and his partners arrested as many people as they could — cramming looters into the open trunks of patrol cars to haul them to the station house. 
       Kids as young as 11 were arrested and put in jail. Close to 3,800 people were arrested across the city on that single night — but hundreds, possibly thousands, more got away without repercussions. 
       “It was like chasing the wind,” an officer told The Post in 1977. 
       When the smoke cleared, many of Bushwick’s businesspeople had lost their livelihoods — and the community was left without its heart.
       The Village Voice also related in an article this past week:
       Of all those who remember the day of the blackout, few have taken responsibility for starting the store break-ins .... Nothing like this had happened in the city’s previous blackout, in November 1965, when only five arrests for looting were reported. ... From most accounts, the 1977 crime wave was begun by a relative handful of teens and young adults in poorer neighborhoods, even as many of their neighbors rushed into the street to help direct traffic — just as they would in the city’s next major blackout, in 2003 — or helped stand guard outside stores whose alarms were now useless. 
       Soon, though, more and more people joined in, once they saw it was a free-for-all. All told, 1,000 fires were reported across the city the night of the blackout, and 3,700 people arrested, mostly for looting. ...
Of course, Bushwick, although the hardest hit, was not the only place facing looting: "hit-and-run break-ins struck parts of Manhattan and Queens and whole streets of stores were ripped off in Brooklyn and the Bronx," according to The Daily News. Amazingly, however, there was apparently only a single murder during the chaos.

"It was like Christmas" (Source)

       What is notable is that the looting was mostly at the hands of minorities, especially blacks. Even Slate recognizes that there was a strong racial element to the looting, observing:
Racial problems in Northern and Midwestern cities had also become inflamed. The riots of the late 1960s had tapered off, but among many urban blacks, resentment remained high, fueling the nighttime looting. "Being that the lights are out and the niggers are going hungry," a black New York teenager told Newsweek, "we're going to take what we want, and what we want is what we need." Of course, in 1977 the vast majority of New Yorkers of all groups obeyed the law. But the high number of African-Americans among the looters indicated that racial tensions were a key part of the equation.
The blackout is even credited for the rise of hip-hop "music," due to the large amount of DJ equipment stolen that night. City Journal notes that "Bushwick’s decline began in the mid-1960s, as impoverished Southern blacks and Puerto Rican immigrants surged into northern urban areas, including central Brooklyn." The looting in 1977 mostly finished off that neighborhood's decline. "On Broadway alone that night, looters pillaged 134 stores and set 44 of them on fire, burning some, like Woolworth’s, to the ground." It is only recently that the neighborhood has begun to revive, due to gentrification.

(H/t Bayou Renaissance Man).

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